Review by twwoodard

"A really mixed review from a player with mixed feelings..."

It's really hard to write a review of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim because my feelings about this game are so very mixed. In some respects, Skyrim is practically a masterpiece, one of the most addictive gaming experiences I've ever had. In other respects, even when I have a hard time putting it down I can't shake a feeling of deep disappointment as I slog my way through a game that I feel could have been so much more.

STORY

While the opening sequences in the game are breathtaking and appear at first to promise a grand narrative, the overall story in Skyrim really leaves much to be desired. It is nowhere near as compelling as the story of an Emperor's murder and the sudden appearance of Oblivion gates all over Cyrodil in ES IV.

You are captured as a refugee, about to be executed for a crime you presumably had nothing to do with, and at the last second you're behind is saved by the unexpected appearance of a dragon thought to be long extinct. From there, you learn that dragons are popping up all over Skyrim and that somehow your bloodline links you to an ancient clan of super-powered dragon slayers called “Dragonborn” who have the ability to absorb a dragon's power and utilize it in the form of a Shout. The main quest basically involves discovering the reason for the reappearance of the dragons, scouring the land acquiring as many Shout powers as you can, and then taking out the boss. Cliche.

In the midst of all this, Skyrim is supposed to be plunged into the middle of a civil war between the Empire loving west and the revolutionaries to the east. In playing through the game several times I've fought on both sides and concluded that neither one of them is worth my time. Neither side ever offered a compelling argument for why I should join them as opposed to the other guys, and to make matters worse, the missions for both sides are EXACTLY... THE... SAME. Whether fighting for the Imperials or the Stormcloaks, I was never allowed to feel pride or regret about the side I had picked in the conflict. So, why bother, unless you just want to earn more gold?

There were a few good characters attached to main storyline. I liked Delphine and Esbern, and was so thrilled to hear Max Von Sydow's voice in a video game that I didn't even really miss the absence of Patrick Stewart. But the cold, hard fact is that none of the characters in this game can hold a candle to Martin Septim, Baurus or Jauffre.

SOUND

Sound is exquisite, music is wonderful, voice acting is well done. Nothing more to say here.

GRAPHICS

Graphics are, most of the time, gorgeous. I found the visual effects they used to cast shadows in this game a bit disconcerting the first time around, but the longer I play the less I notice them. Not too many horrid camera issues. The landscape looks much better fleshed out than it did in Oblivion, even if the wintery landscape of Skyrim is much bleaker than its predecessor.

CONTROLS

Here is one of the main areas where Skyrim both makes major improvements over Oblivion and also thoroughly screws up a lot of things that Oblivion got right. One major improvement is the dual wield system, which allows you to link a weapon, shield, staff or spell to each hand and use them independently. An example of the advantage this poses would be the ability for a mage to simultaneously sling fireballs with one hand while healing himself or herself with the other, something that could not be done in Oblivion.

One major feature I loved about Oblivion which got wrecked in Skyrim was the hotkey system for your favorite spells or items. In Oblivion, you could have eight separate favorites linked to the eight directions of the D-pad. In Skyrim, you are required to make due with only two hotkeyed favorites linked the left and right positions on the D-pad. They tried, and failed, to compensate for this by allowing you to have an unlimited number of other “favorite” items or spells which you can access by pushing up or down on the D-pad, which pauses the game and brings up a list on the screen through which you must manually scroll to find the thing you're looking for. It lacks all of the polish and style of the system used in Oblivion.

Combat in Skyrim is a really mixed bag compared to Bethesda's recent entries. There are a lot of combat options and some great tools to improve your melee, archery or magic skills. Having said that, it seems almost inexcusable that there is no system for targeting an enemy. I can't count the number of times a companion has died accidentally by my hand because of an errant sword swing or firebolt thrown in the middle of a frenetic melee.

GAMEPLAY

Here is where the game generates most of my serious mixed feelings. The pleasure of taking down a dragon is tremendous. The dungeons are well designed and feel sufficiently dark and creepy to keep you interested in delving further. Hunting down all those dragon Shouts not only expands your list of available powers but also brings you within reach of some nifty unique magic items. Gone is the ability to create your own spells, but the ability to forge and upgrade your own armor and weapons and enchant them to near omnipotent power more than makes up for it.

I actually do very much like the streamlined character leveling system. Many RPGs suffer from an excessively complex stat system designed with obsessive-compulsive people in mind and no one else. Skyrim pairs it down to the bare essentials to give you a game that focuses on exploring and adventuring, not on managing your character's numbers. I also appreciate the fact that Bethesda streamlined the skills to eliminate the superfluous ones. The useless Athletics and Acrobatics skills are nowhere to be seen, and Speechcraft and Mercantile have been sensibly merged into a single skill called Speech. Blade, Blunt and Hand-to-Hand are no more, and Skyrim divides melee combat into the much more logical One-Handed and Two-Handed categories. Mysticism has been absorbed into several other magical skill classes, and Repair has been replaced by Smithing. Skyrim's landscape, stark as it is, at least won't be littered by a trillion non-biodegradable broken repair hammers.

Now for the bad.

First, and I can't believe nobody else has pointed this out, is the issue of Dragons vs. Giants. Skyrim is supposed to be about dragons. Dragons, as everone knows, are awesome. Dragons are what we were salivating over for months. The dragons in Skyrim look wonderful. In flight they are as majestic as one could hope for. When they land twenty feet in front of you to take you on in single combat, you can't help but feel that you're in for a tough fight. The frost and fire breath animations are a sight to behold. The first time I slayed a dragon my character was at level 4. Level 4 and I took on a dragon and won. Then I walked a half mile down the road and got killed by a single blow from a giant before I even had a chance to swing my sword. That's when I realized something was way off here. The giants in Skyrim are at least a dozen times stronger and tougher to kill than the dragons are. Maybe more. You don't even want to go near them until you're at least level 25 or higher. I don't know even why they're there. I haven't found a single quest or part of the story that has anything to do with them. All they do is kill you in a single blow and make the dragons--the focus of the story--look like a bunch of pansies by comparison. Imagine my endless annoyance the first time I witnessed a dragon fighting a giant from afar and saw the giant fall. So I beat dragon, dragon beats giant, giant beats me. Yeah, that makes sense.

Second are the NPCs. There are loads and loads of NPCs in this game, and they are all identical. I can understand not needing to design huge differences between shopkeepers whose primary function is to give you a place to dump your loot for cash. That's fine.

But consider the Jarls. There are nine Jarls, the leaders of the nine holds of Skyrim, roughly analogous to the various Counts featured in Oblivion. In Oblivion, each Count was definitely distinct from the others. One of them was even a vampire! In Skyrim, every Jarl has basically the same outfit, the same crown on his or her head, talks with the same accent, and has the same personality.

Consider next the companions you can hire to follow you. In Bethesda's last RPG masterpiece, Fallout: New Vegas, companions were a wonderful addition. There were eight of them, each with unique personalities, dialogue, side quests, abilities and each of them gave you a unique perk. My personal favorite was Veronica, but I found something to like about all of them, and since you were only allowed to have two, the game forced you to make an actual choice. The companions in Skyrim are all cut from the same cloth and come in two basic varieties: fighters and mages. The first companion you are handed is Lydia, and when she dies (as she often does for me) there are a dozen just like her close at hand to choose from.

Consider next the whole practice of marriage. You can get married in Skyrim, sans the idiotic blacked-out sex scenes from Fable. Being married basically gives you a negligible daily income from your spouse's home business and gives you one extra shopkeeper in the form of your spouse. Why your wife or husband would want to buy all the junk you looted the second you walk in the door all hot and sweaty from your last adventure is beyond me, but never mind that. Here again, functionally all spouses are the same and there are dozens to choose from. This leaves the gamer in the position of choosing their spouse on the basis of nothing more than looks, and has generated an unholy number of fanboy discussion boards for whining about how you can't marry Hroki, who is arguably the best looking female in the game. This is the ultimate example of Skyrim's unapologetic superficiality. The game is huge, yes, but it's all breadth and no depth. I just find it impossible to care about anything going on in this world or anybody in it.

Finally, there is the terrain. Skyrim looks beautiful when you're standing on a mountaintop. It had better, considering the fact that it probably took you the better part of a quarter hour wandering around the base of that mountain trying to find a navigable path up. Getting from one part of the world map to a part you haven't discovered yet makes the long load times seem trivial by comparison. And that's the most inexcusable buzzkill of all for a game that's supposed to make you want to get out there and explore.

OVERALL

So, as I said, I have mixed feelings. Some parts of Skyrim definitely make it a 10 out of 10 game, and others probably deserve a 5 out of 10 on a day when I'm in a good mood. So, I split the difference and settled on a 7 out of 10. It's the most fair analysis I could make.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 01/23/12

Game Release: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (US, 11/11/11)


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